Remembering the Flood of ’69

In response a recent thread of Facebook comments on the Flood of 1969 I dug out this Ashland Times-Gazette article from June 29, 2009.

It was my contribution to a whole section with archival photos on how the flood impacted Ashland County and the Mohican area.

Hope the T-G puts together a similar section on the 50th anniversary of the flood.

Here it is, sans photos:

Perhaps Trudy Knowlton-Bates best summed up the flood of July 4, 1969, when she said, “This was truly one of the most profound events in my life.”

Judging from news clippings following the flood and accounts recently submitted by readers, it was a profound event. The flood of 1969 changed the way Ashland County residents looked at life. Individually and collectively.

It struck on a Friday night, the Fourth of July. It was the start of a holiday weekend, when people were looking forward to family outings, camping, canoeing and relaxing.

It was a time when such things were taken for granted. For most, creature comforts were readily available, there was a strong feeling of self-reliance and our infrastructure seemed adequate.

That perception changed overnight.

Friday was a typical Fourth of July holiday. Hundreds of campers had settled in at the campgrounds around Loudonville. Families gathered at homes or area parks to picnic.

As evening arrived, storm cells formed on both sides of a stationary front over the area. Few, if any, saw it coming. Weather warning systems were woefully inadequate.

It rained hard and steadily throughout the night. In a 24-hour period, rainfall amounts in Ashland County ranged from 8.5 to 16 inches.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 5, 1969, waterways had become overwhelmed. Around 3 a.m., flash floods developed, gathering debris. The debris, which included vehicles and travel trailers in some cases, lodged against bridges and culverts, backing up the churning water, widening the path of destruction. Murky water surged into basements, undermining foundations. The pressure of the current pinning debris against bridges out in the county caused many of them to topple into the water.

The most crushing blow to the county’s infrastructure was the collapse of the dam at the Ashland Reservoir northeast of the city off U.S. 42. It sent about 110 million gallons of water gushing into the already-flooded Jerome Fork Watershed.

During the early stages of flash flooding Saturday morning, a rural Ashland woman and her 9-year-old niece were swept away by the current after the car in which they were riding stalled on Ohio 58. Their bodies were found 12 hours later about a mile away.

One other person drowned in Ashland County flooding. At about 8:30 a.m. Saturday, a Dalton truck driver was trapped in fast-moving water east of Rowsburg on U.S. 250. By the time would-be rescuers were able to get a boat to the truck, the driver was gone. His body was recovered three days later along Muddy Fork of the Mohican River.

In spite of the danger, more than 100 people joined the rescue and recovery efforts. In the case of the truck driver, his fellow employees from Orrville Milk Co. drove here from Wayne County to help look for him.

What made the 1969 flood a profound experience was not just the extent of the destruction; it was the extraordinary effort on the part of so many people. Emergency responders, public officials and everyday people rose to the occasion, forsaking their own self-interest to help others.

Some even risked their lives, including State Highway Patrol troopers Frank J. Iley and Roger E. Teague, tow truck operator Larry Aber and gas station owner Dave Shafer. They came to the aid of a family of four from Nashua, N.Y., who became stranded when their van was swept off the pavement on Interstate 71 and pinned against a fence.

Similar incidents were reported, including one north of the city on U.S. 250 in which firefighters were pulled from a rushing creek after a bridge collapsed.

These and other rescue efforts — including some that probably were not reported — prevented further casualties.

Disaster relief efforts began early Saturday morning and escalated as more and more people began to realize what had happened. Forty years ago, there wasn’t the luxury of instantaneous communications. Those living on higher ground didn’t realize at first just how bad the situation was.

That included County Engineer Howard Maxheimer. In a series of articles published 10 years after the flood, T-G staff writer Frank Telakowicz wrote that Maxheimer “said he didn’t know anything about the flood until he went downtown to buy a plug for the basement to stop water from coming into his house.”

“I was stunned, but I went right to work,” Maxheimer told Telakowicz.

When it came to disaster relief, jurisdictional issues and geographical boundaries went by the wayside.

Sheriff George Wissler invited the City Police Department to set up temporary operations in his office. The City Police Department sent four officers to Wooster to help out. Nine people had died in flooding there, including two police officers. Meanwhile, Mansfield sent four officers and two cruisers to assist the Ashland Police Department.

Ashland, Wooster and four other municipalities had signed a mutual aid agreement in 1967. Ashland and Mansfield had an informal agreement that, if aid was needed in a crisis situation, it would be provided. The Mansfield Police Department made good on that agreement.

Local Red Cross volunteers began relief efforts at 4 a.m. Saturday. Two days later, the Eastern Area office set up disaster processing centers in Ashland, Nova and Loudonville.

Even the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts did their part. Troops from Christ United Methodist Church volunteered to help in cleanup efforts.

Ashland County REACT, an organization of amateur radio enthusiasts dedicated to providing emergency communications assistance, had scheduled a jamboree at the fairgrounds that weekend. REACT members were pressed into service, assisting with communications and helping with rescue efforts.

Local businesses also contributed to the relief effort.

Employees of the All Star Dairy on Clark Street packaged water into half-gallon milk containers to be distributed in the city.

Faultless Rubber contacted its parent company, Abbott Laboratories in Columbus, and arranged to have 48,000 chlorine tablets flown in for Samaritan Hospital and the Good Shepherd Home.

Hess & Clark provided water for city residents from its research facility outside the city.

F.E. Myers Co. supplied water pumps and 300-gallon water tanks, which were placed for residents at locations around the city.

Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. in Mansfield also supplied water tanks.

In the southern part of the county, flooding had routed hundreds of campers and stranded motorists. Residents of Loudonville and Hayesville were quick to respond.

Loudonville residents gathered truckloads of shoes, clothing and bedding for a relief effort in Killbuck.

“People were generous to the point of purchasing new items such as towels and bedding to be given to the victims,” Cecelia Weakland wrote in the July 9, 1969, T-G.

The response was so great, more than three truckloads had to be stored in the Youth Building, where it was boxed and sorted by children from a local Sunday school class.

Campers who had been evacuated from Loudonville area campgrounds and Charles Mill and Pleasant Hill Lake parks descended on Hayesville. Accommodations were set up for them and stranded motorists at Hayesville Elementary and Hillsdale High School. Village residents prepared food for them. A few homeowners even volunteered to put up families for the night.

News stories and personal accounts suggest the flood of 1969 profoundly affected the residents of Ashland County. They saw firsthand how fragile life can be, that death and destruction can come quickly and with little or no warning. They also learned their weather warning systems and infrastructure were inadequate.

Since then, steps have been taken at all levels of government to improve both. Some of those measures were a direct result of the flood.

City Engineer Mel Bauer acknowledged years later that the storm had served as a learning experience. It was. But its lessons went beyond meteorology and infrastructure. The response — individually and collectively — was an example of what can be done when people from all walks of life reach inside themselves for an extra measure of courage and compassion.